While the weak Canadian dollar meant fewer cross-border shoppers this holiday season, some Whatcom County retailers were able to find silver linings to avoid a huge slowdown in sales.
Official taxable retail sales numbers won’t be available until later this year, but many acknowledge it was a different holiday shopping season compared to the past five years, when the strong loonie was hanging around par with the U.S. dollar.
Boosted by travelers from the south, the Bellis Fair parking lot was at 95 percent capacity at peak times every weekend beginning on Thanksgiving weekend, said Rene Morris, general manager of the mall. It was particularly busy the final nine days before Christmas, she said.
925,715 Southbound travelers going into Whatcom County from the five border crossings in November, the lowest monthly total in more than four years
“We found that many of our shoppers were not just local but they were coming from as far south as Everett, Marysville, Oak Harbor, Anacortes and the San Juan Islands,” Morris said.
It was a much different story for Canadian shopping in Whatcom County. According to data gathered by Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute, 925,715 people crossed southbound through Whatcom’s five border crossings in November, the lowest monthly total in more than four years.
The Canadian dollar fell below 70 U.S. cents Tuesday, Jan. 12, for the first time in almost 13 years, continuing a downward trend begun late last year. That weakened the buying power of shoppers from north of the border.
Tina Schwindt of Fairhaven Toy Garden and Bay to Baker Trading Company certainly noticed fewer Canadians during the holidays. On a busy Saturday afternoon before Christmas, one of her employees took an informal survey, asking customers where they were from. Only three said they were from Canada.
Still, sales weren’t as bad as she feared. While November and December were slower overall, she noticed an increase in the number of local residents as well as people coming up from the south.
Schwindt doesn’t blame the Canadians for not coming down with the loonie hovering in the 70-cent range; she’s more grateful that they did come to Whatcom County for a multi-year stretch when their currency was strong.
“It was their business that helped us during the recession,” she said.
No room for complacency in retail, especially these days.
Steve Roguski, owner of Fairhaven Runners
Nearby at Fairhaven Runners, owner Steve Roguski said they experienced the slowest December in years because of fewer Canadian shoppers and the growth of online shopping. He estimates his Canadian customer base is down 80 percent compared to when the currency was stronger. They are working on ways to develop new markets and strengthen current ones.
“(There is) no room for complacency in retail, especially these days,” Roguski said.
The stronger U.S. economy may have boosted sales to Washington residents, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Low gas prices throughout 2015 also meant some extra spending money for local residents.
He also heard from a few chamber members about more shoppers up here from places like Skagit County, and there was still some Canadian holiday shopping presence. He noted that the currency difference is just one of several factors that prompt Canadians to shop in Whatcom County. Others include the difference in sales tax and wider inventory options, particularly American brands that are not yet available in Canada.
In the toy business, Schwindt has had to deal with a bigger issue than the changing currency. Online sales have taken a bite out of many retail businesses; Schwindt said they tried to address that competition by being more of a specialty toy store, stocking items that might be hard to find online. At the Bay to Baker gift store, which has plenty of items made by Pacific Northwest artists, sales this holiday season were up compared to the year before.
While competing against the Amazons and other online giants is daunting, Schwindt said she found one plus this season. Not wanting to pay for the shipping costs, more customers have been doing something called web or app brooming — searching something online, then going into local stores to see if they have it.
While the start of the year is generally slower in terms of retail sales, it’s actually a busy time for many owners and managers of local stores. January and February is when they head off to shows and conventions to look for new items to sell in the coming year.
For Schwindt, her first big toy show is in February, and already she is pondering what kind of ordering to do for the 2016 Christmas season. Given that the Canadian dollar is expected to remain weak, she’s leaning toward ordering more toys for the summer months and maybe a little less during the holidays. If the trend continues of more people visiting from the south, summer could be a busier season for those daytrippers, she said.